Terrible Translations

Oh yes, you travellers out there know exactly what I’m talking about.

Have you ever sat down with the hopes of ordering a savoury meal, just to look at the menu and find it translated into nonsensical gibberish that’s supposed to be English? Or, worse yet! Have you ever seen something translated that makes perfect sense, just not in that context? It can lead to some  snickering,  pointing, picture taking, or even to some extremely loud, tears-streaming-down-your face, snot-pouring-out your nose guffawing. Did I paint a lovely picture for you? I certainly hope so.

Conjure up the image of an Alpine-style restaurant tucked away in a small town in the Dolomites, a summer evening, and a family of four. The father, a native Italian speaker, is graced with an Italian menu. Mom and kids are saddled with the English translated ones. The teenage daughter (yours truly), peruses the menu and suddenly starts to cackle like the Schlern Witch (a legendary little hag from the area).

“What the heck’s so funny, Sarah?” Dad asks.

“I’ll have the…” I lay my menu down on the table to start pointing, not doing a very good job of it because my finger is heaving up and down with my laughter.

“The…” Still cackling.

“The…!” Gasp. Laugh. Heave. Cackle. Gasp. Gasp. Snort. (Whoops!) Cackle. Laugh. Gasp.

“Spit it out, will ya sis?” Commands my brother.

“I’ll have the chunks of meat on a twig!” I say as fast as I can, trying to get it out between the heaving and laughing.

“The what!?” Dad looks at me like I’m crazy.

“Chunks of meat on a twig!”

Upon further inspection of the Italian language menu, we found out that the menu was offering spiedini, known in English as shish kabobs.  What did they use, the Rustic Hiker’s Guide to the English Language to translate that one?

And that’s not even the worst of it…

Picture a cozy restaurant in Belgium. It’s fall, there’s a fire in the fireplace, and it seems like just the right kind of night to try a something new. Mom and I flip through the fifteen pages of Belgian beer before we finally get to the non-liquid part of the menu.

“Oh Sarah. Oh gosh. What the heck do you think this is?” Mom tries to stifle her laughter as she points to one of the main dishes, a “specialty of the house”, or so they say.

“Windblown chicken?!”

Mom snickers in response.

“What the heck kind of place did you bring me to, Mom!? They wanna talk about cruelty to cows and stuff when they slaughter them…Let them come here! I’m getting a mental image of a poor, poor little chicken being flung around by a windmill!”

I do my best impression of a panicked chicken tied to the arm of a windmill, and it’s the end of Mom’s self control. Further inspection of the French language menu showed the dish to be “Vol-au-vent”, a little puffed pastry thingee that’s served with some type of thick chicken sauce over it. Sounds kinda good!

Not only can you encounter this type of linguistic creativity on menus (although I have found that they’re the most common displays of transfigured translations) but you’ll see it on signs in store windows, on official documents, on roadsigns and just about anywhere that tries to cater to tourists. Good-quality translations are few and far between, so get used to muddling through the made-up words, fancy spellings, misuses and syntactical creativity. Just think of it as another “cultural experience” while abroad!

See if you can spot the interesting translations in this French menu:

Terrible Translations



Parla Inglese?

When I’m in Italy, it makes my heart soar with happiness when someone approaches me in the street or gets me on the phone at work and asks me politely in English accented Italian, “lei parla inglese?”

“Why, yes I do speak English! What can I help you with?” I say with a broad smile, in English, of course.

Is it because living, thinking, working and speaking in Italian day in and day out is so taxing on me that I’m happy someone wants me to lapse back into English? Not really. Is it because I become overwhelmed with fellow-feeling for this other traveler or client who obviously speaks my native language? Not really. (Although I have been known to do cartwheels when I meet fellow Canadians in Siena). It’s because they asked, and didn’t just assume that I magically speak English.

“But Sarah!” you rebut. “You do speak English. It’s your first language. You’re Canadian. Why would you be offended when people assume you speak English. They’re right!!!”

Yes, they are. And so are you. But the thing is, when I’m in Italy, 99% of non-Italians think I’m Italian. Some even ask where an Italian like me learned to speak English so well, with just a hint of an accent. Puh-leeze! But when people  approach me and immediately start asking for advice or directions in English, I get a little annoyed for the Italians. Because it’s this little thing that reveals the mindset of many North Americans or Brits – that because English is becoming increasingly popular, EVERYONE should and can speak it. This would also mean that there’s no reason for native English speakers to learn a second language….

You’re talking to a language buff here, so I’ll never agree with you on that one. I have a huge interest in languages – not just my native one – and when I travel, I think it’s SO important to learn a few words in the local language. It shows the people whose country, whose home you’re visiting, that you’re not some imperialistic force, hoping to spread the supremacy of English to each corner of the earth. Or, think of it this way: if you know a few words in the local language, you’re less likely to be duped, swindled or confused during your visit.

Five years ago, my extended family and I visited Germany and Austria. Knowing that I was the language lover of the family, I was provided with a Rick Steves German Phrasebook, and was given the task of official translator / menu decoder for the duration of the trip, for all 9 of us. As you can see, I took my job very seriously.

Sprechen sie deutsch?!

And the Germans and Austrians that I encountered were very pleased that I had taken some time in the airport and on the flight over to learn a bit about their language and pronunciation! Most Europeans, except possibly the French, are very happy to help you even if you’re butchering their language. They applaud your effort, may try to correct you, and happily offer a helping hand with whatever your query might be about.

So break out that high school French or Spanish that you’ve got collecting dust in the recesses of your brain, grab a Swedish or Italian phrasebook and hit the road. Learn to greet the Croatians with a friendly “Bok!”, thank the Germans with, “Danke”,  ask the Spanish for something with “por favor” and say your goodbyes to the Italians with “arrivederci!”

A little effort goes a long way.